Maeterlinck Songs, Op.13
Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano)
Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir
Trinity Boys Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 22 September, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
In 1960 Mahler’s centenary prompted a radical reappraisal of his life and oeuvre of a kind unimaginable today. He remained then a relatively marginal figure for concertgoers, denied a place in the pantheon of German music alongside those other composer-conductors of genius, Wagner and Richard Strauss. Today Mahler’s music is far too ubiquitous for the London Philharmonic’s year-long survey of his music to make waves. On the evidence of this concert it could be the well-chosen contextual makeweights that will make the exercise worthwhile. Mahler at his most gargantuan drew a near-capacity crowd but the more modest fin-de-siècle hothouse erected by his colleague and sometime rival for Alma’s affections offered the subtler music-making.
Zemlinsky’s haunting Maeterlinck settings are rarely given and need to be heard in orchestral garb to make their full effect. The composer shares with Schreker a tendency to tread water rather than clinch an argument, but these subtly lit, Klimt-like fantasies of damsels and knights are scored with rare distinction – harmonium and celesta included. Only the last two, ‘Und kehrt er einst heim’ and ‘Sie kam zum Schloss gegangen’ (redolent respectively of Strauss and Mahler), have the kind of clear melodic profile we associate with those composers. Elsewhere a slithery Schoenbergian chromaticism makes the cycle quite a challenge. Amid the weird quasi-devotional sonorities of ‘Lied der Jungfrau’, placed third, even Petra Lang had some difficulty in sustaining pitch (Zemlinsky begins with harmonium and solo cello). An accomplished singer whose focus on Wagnerian repertoire has had the effect of loosening her vibrato somewhat, she makes a less sheerly beautiful sound than the songs might seem to require but all credit to her for championing them.
The main work poses few technical challenges these days. Perhaps that is the problem! As with the performance of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony which opened the LPO’s 2009 season, there was a crisp virility about Vladimir Jurowski’s interpretation which did not tell the whole story. When in Helsinki 1907 Mahler famously insisted on the all-embracing qualities of symphonic writing, that the form should be “like the world”, he must have had something more challenging (and probably a lot messier) in mind than this ‘concerto for orchestra’ approach. Under Jurowski the vast first movement was notably well drilled yet presented little mystery or contrast between its three main blocks of material. The sound was insistently bright, the timpani obstreperous.
Nothing much to criticise in the basic conception of the second movement save the self-consciousness of the phrasing, now clipped, now over-indulgent. It was the same story in the third. Rather than evoking the ‘animals of the forest’ this fantastical music made a curiously urban effect even before the intervention of a mobile phone during the second appearance of the offstage posthorn solo. And the moment had been beautifully prepared, the halo of high strings genuinely quiet and free of high-tech glare. Tackling her Nietzsche verses from a perch up with the choirs, Petra Lang impressed, despite having to contend with a spate of unusually intrusive upward glissandos on oboe and cor anglais. Simon Rattle started this literal observation of Mahler’s instruction of “hinaufzehen” (pull up), and I haven’t heard it sounding quite like this. The fifth movement was ideally taut and spirited. The finale, albeit preceded by an unwelcome and unauthorised pause, was a surprise, slow, patient and almost rapt with no embarrassed speeding up at the end. The difficulty being a failure to convey the sense of struggle and spiritual catharsis that old LPO hands will associate with the likes of Klaus Tennstedt or Bernard Haitink. Quite a contrast too with Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne Festival Orchestra Prom in which several passages barely reached the threshold of audibility and the very end was radically rebalanced to avoid any hint of stridency.
This by contrast was young man’s Mahler, despatched with forensic brilliance by an orchestra in fine fettle. Impressive but unmoving.